Legislature must help state fair

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


We've long supported the Oregon State Fair. That's why it's difficult for us to hear so many livestock exhibitors complain about their experiences at the fair. We're sad that some individual exhibitors and some long-time competitions have chosen to seek other venues.

Though we have remained a sponsor of the state fair, we have not been deaf to the talk around the barns, exhibit halls and midway that the annual celebration of Oregon agriculture and natural resources is not the event it once was.

What's wrong with the fair?

The simple answer is money. The fair has long run in the red, and depends on the Department of Parks and Recreation to make up the shortfall with lottery money. Costs continue to rise even as the state demands budget cuts. As money gets tight, fair officials have to nibble around the edges -- raising fees here, cutting expenses there. Compounded over time, the result is a diminished event.

Some of the problems facing the fair can be blamed on the economy.

Mostly, though, the fair is the victim of rigid state procurement, contract and employment rules that may well serve bureaucratic agencies, but don't allow the nimble management necessary for a vibrant public entertainment and exposition business. It's time for a change.

A blue ribbon panel said as much in 2009. Most state agencies offer their services to a captive market. If you want a driver's license, for example, you have to visit the state DMV. But the competition for the consumer's entertainment budget is fierce. To compete, fair officials need to be able to quickly react to market conditions, to wheel and deal in ways not allowed under the existing rules.

Connie Bradley, the fair's former director, said when it comes to soliciting business sponsors, buying radio advertisements and negotiating contracts with vendors and entertainers, state regulations can turn simple negotiations into expensive, complex and months-long processes. Rules meant to protect the state can make it too expensive for small vendors to work the two-week event. When the state increased the liability insurance limit it required of vendors from $1 million to $4 million, for example, many small commercial exhibitors couldn't afford the premiums.

The panel said the fair and the exposition center needs a new governance model "not inhibited by state agency budgeting, contracting, purchasing and personnel rules." We agree. The changes suggested by the panel would allow the fair to enter into more profitable partnerships with private businesses, and attract private capital investment in the facilities and infrastructure.

Lisa VanLaanen, assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department who serves as head of the fair, said the department is acting on the panel's recommendations behind the scenes. But exempting the fair and exposition center from state rules, and contracting a private company to manage the exposition facilities, requires legislation.

The department must actively seek a sponsor for the changes in the next session. For the sake of the fair, we encourage swift action by the Legislature.

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